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Leader interviews: Jacinda Ardern says vision not ‘defined’ by Covid-19

Leader interviews: Jacinda Ardern says vision not 'defined' by Covid-19

Labour’s campaign slogan “Let’s Keep Moving” is hardly the most inspirational but reflects the conservative game plan – trade on the Covid response and stay on track.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

With Parliament adjourned and politicians ready to hit the campaign trail, RNZ presents a series of interviews with New Zealand’s political leaders.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern describes the past three years – which have been dominated by disaster – as “unexpected, many high points but many moments no-one could have anticipated”.

March 15th, Whaakari/White Island and the global pandemic will “feature heavily as defining experiences” in the history books, she says.

But she’s also “mindful of the obligation that we have to the people who put us here” to make sure “alongside of responding to those issues that we still keep and stay on track with the agenda we came to Parliament with”.

“So, yes. Covid will predetermine a lot of what we debate this election, but voters still have a choice to make as to whether or not they continue with the plan that we have pitched or whether or not they choose to stop and move on to an alternate programme,” says Ardern.

She’s mounting the argument as the governing party, expectations of fresh, new policy during an election campaign should be lower.

“The direction of an incumbent should never be defined by a mere six week programme because our job and our duty is to make changes when we have the opportunity, not to save them up merely for a political moment”.

Partly driving that is Labour has a lot of unfinished business because of what was not achieved by the coalition, including welfare reform, significantly reducing inequality and child poverty and big transport projects like Auckland light rail. Covid also forced major spending programmes that were announced some months ago; they’ve sucked up vast amounts of money, but that doesn’t preclude the presentation of new ideas.

Ardern says Labour’s “vision has not been defined by a pandemic”, but she hopes it will be “accelerated” by one. “Building back better” has become the mantra.

She points out the coalition was able to pass close to 200 pieces of legislation with consensus; although only one indicator, she says that’s “a good sign of good faith between the parties and the role I play as the ‘glue’ in these relationships and that has been a large part of my job too”.

Coalition relations

The often volatile relationship between the three governing parties has also been a feature of this term, in what Ardern describes as one of New Zealand’s “purest” MMP governments.

Much was thrashed out in private and consensus reached, but there was plenty of disagreement and clashing of big personalities played out in full view – MMP in action. The closer the election, the more aggressive coalition partner New Zealand First has become in distancing itself from Labour and the Greens – sometimes through outright criticism.

That’s done nothing to harm the “good” relationships, even while dealing with tricky issues, and that was “the same today as it was six months ago”, Ardern says.

She “shrugs off” the combative stance taken by New Zealand First and says she’ll continue to defend the government’s record.

“You won’t hear me speaking unkindly or in a disparaging way of anyone I’ve worked with because I think that does a disservice to what we’ve managed to do together.”

Would she rather work with the Greens or New Zealand First if Labour’s in a position to form a government?: “I’ll work with the position, should we be in it,” she says.

“My job though is not to sit and make calculations around what might come in the future, it’s to focus on the Labour – and that, in a way, is not something I get as much room to do during a term in office”.

Tax

The promise of putting more money in voters’ pockets through tax changes has tended to be one past point of difference between Labour and National, but not so this time.

Neither will be campaigning on a programme of tax cuts in 2020. Not only will the next government need to find ways to boost revenue, not slash it, but even Covid wouldn’t be a big enough excuse for Labour given its opposition to broad based tax cuts costing a lot and disproportionately benefiting the wealthy.

One difference though is National would look to repay the mammoth Covid debt faster than Labour, prompting accusations from Ardern the party is lining up for austerity cuts to the tune of $80 billion.

Not true, counters National, but as with Steven Joyce’s ‘fiscal hole’ last election, how the numbers stack up will come under increasing scrutiny as the campaign rolls out and once the parties have laid out their full policy line-up.

National leader Judith Collins has ruled out any tax increases under a National government. Not so Ardern, when asked if those on high incomes could pay under Labour.

To give an indication of “where the thinking is at the moment”, Ardern pointed to significant tax breaks for small business owners as part of the Covid response, “trying to use the tax system to support cash flow at a really cash-restrained time”, but would not specifically rule out a increase for the wealthiest New Zealanders.

“My answer is I haven’t released our tax policy … I’ve not got into the ‘rule in, rule out’ game because it can go on for quite some time, I’ve found, best instead if I just respond to our tax policy once I’ve put it out.”

In line with her previous commitment however, Ardern did rule out any future capital gains tax.

Child poverty

Ardern herself took on portfolio responsibility for tackling child poverty; Labour put in place targets for how it would be measured, to be reported back through the Budget process.

Budget 2020 concluded – due to the time lag on quality data and Covid-19 – that Treasury forecasts about the impact of policies like the Families Package “no longer apply, however they do indicate that the government was broadly on track to meet the three-year targets on the two primary measures of low income”. The third measure is ‘material hardship’.

Seven of the nine child poverty indicators have gone from ‘declining’ to ‘improving’, says Ardern, pushing back on the suggestion the coalition has failed to shift the dial.

“The reason I say we haven’t failed is because all of the forecasting we’ve done has looked at from the proportion that we have, that generally indicates statistically that it looks like we are having the impact we anticipated having.”

Covid-19 will of course present even more challenges, but the full impact is not yet clear, she says.

Ardern lists initiatives like indexation of benefit to wage growth, the BestStart and winter energy payments, paid parental leave extension and lunches in schools as all making a difference.

“They have been layered so sometimes the impact of those different policies hasn’t always been acknowledged but when you look at for instance, a sole parent, in some parts of the country can be receiving up to 60 percent more than they were when we came into office.

“I stand by what we’ve done in child poverty, the numbers tell a story but they also say we’re not done – and we’re not”.

The “lag” in the data is frustrating, says Ardern.

“We right now only have data that tells us about, only partially, the changes that we’ve made”.

Some of the first data covered the last years under National for which the coalition copped some criticism, which she “always found quite galling”.

“So we don’t still yet have a complete picture of the impact we’ve had and we won’t for some time but the starting point is still that we are broadly on track to achieve our goals”.

Welfare

In their confidence and supply agreement, Labour and the Greens committed to “overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions and review Working For Families so that everyone has a standard of living and income that enables them to live in dignity and participate in their communities, and lifts children and their families out of poverty”.

“There is more work to be done … nor have we finished,” Ardern says.

There has been a “culture change” at the Ministry of Social Development, she says, and “if you talk to beneficiary advocates they’ll tell you that there has been a significant change in the way that people are treated … which was fundamental to us”.

The structural problems Labour and the Greens believe are inherent in the system have not been addressed. Covid again played a part and boosting benefit payments and other entitlements were a key aspect of the government response.

“There have been significant changes that have affected accommodation supplement, indexation, general benefit increases, work on some of the sanctions and the cultural reform programme, we’ve also said we do still have a rolling programme with the Welfare Expert Advisory Group that has helped us set an agenda going forward too”, Ardern says.

Work and Income has been scaled up with “hundreds” of extra case workers, she says.

“What was clear to us is it wasn’t a really active Labour market response that we had in our system and we recognised that before Covid. People coming into the system weren’t getting the support that they needed – be it that they weren’t getting their entitlements but even support back into appropriate work.”

She says the lesson from the global financial crisis is the need to “work for the longer term; every time there’s an earthquake, an economic shock, we revert to these reactions rather than building something into our system”.

Ardern sees any regret as a “wasted emotion” when reflecting on her term as Prime Minister, but there is more she’d like to do on inequality.

“Yeah, just keep going…I will not feel satisfied until I feel, and probably the job will never feel done for me, until I feel we’re living up to our reputation that we are a country that cares for its most vulnerable.”

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